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The "unusual" behaviour of Israelis in the wake of the Christchurch earthquake sparked a top level investigation, Prime Minister John Key has confirmed.
After almost a day of stonewalling, Key confirmed the probe, which involved the spy agency SIS, concluded there was no evidence they were Israeli intelligence agents.
In a carefully worded statement, he also verified a dead Israeli van driver had two passports. Three occupants who escaped the wreckage took their passports back to Israel, he said.
It comes after the defence force confirmed elite SAS troops were in Christchurch's red zone after the disaster - but insisted they weren't dealing with an unaccredited rescue squad.
Key, currently on a visit to the US, said the investigation was triggered by the rapid departure from New Zealand of three Israelis who survived the February 22 quake.
"Security agencies conducted the investigation and found no evidence that the people were anything other than backpackers," he said.
Three Israelis were among the 181 people who died when the earthquake struck on February 22.
An SIS officer told the Southland Times there were fears Israeli agents had hacked the police national computer, compromising highly sensitive files. Police have since said their systems are subject to regular security audits and are secure.
The investigation centred on a group of four people in a van in the city centre. Driver Ofer Benyamin Mizrahi, 23, was killed instantly and the other three left the country within 12 hours. The newspaper reported Mizrahi was found with five passports.
Key refused to answer questions about the revelations when he was grilled by reporters this morning, saying it was not in the "national interest."
He did not dispute there were a number of passports involved and said there was nothing illegal in someone holding more than one. In this afternoon's statement he said he had been advised the dead man was found with only one passport, of European origin.
The surviving passengers van took their own passports with them when they left the country, and handed over the deceased man's Israeli passport to Israeli representatives before departing, he said.
"None of the passports were New Zealand passports," Key said.
This morning Key also said he had received a number of phonecalls from Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - but said not all had got through to him. Although he would not discuss all aspects of their conversation he said Netanyahu called to offer help and advice.
In this afternoon's statement, Key confirmed he spoke once with Netanyahu "in the days following" the quake.
"It took several attempts by Israeli representatives to set up the phone call, as is commonly the case with such calls in the circumstances of a major natural disaster," the statement said.
Key also said he had been assured by police there had been no unauthorised access to their computer system.
The government took the security of New Zealanders "very seriously," he said.
A private search and rescue team was dispatched to Christchurch and although forbidden from entering the CBD was later escorted from the red zone by armed police, this mornings story reported.
Mr Key's statement came after both the Green and Labour parties called on him to be more open.
Israel's ambassador Shemi Tzur has dismissed suspicions the group were Mossad agents as "science fiction."
SAS IN THE RED ZONE
This afternoon Defence Force chief Rhys Jones confirmed members of the SAS entered Christchurch's red zone after the February 22 earthquake.
''Approximately 1800 Defence Force personnel were deployed to Canterbury in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake on a wide variety of civil and humanitarian aid tasks.
''I can confirm that a small number of SAS personnel were included in that number, as they possessed relevant specialist medical skills and trauma experience to support the first response needs.''
Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said he could ''categorically assure the people of New Zealand'' the SAS staff were not there to deal with an uncredited Israeli rescue squad.
Police this morning said their systems and the information contained on them were secure, and were subject to regular security audits and intrusion checks.
"We also have a number of anti intrusion measures designed to stop unauthorised or malicious programs from entering or being active on our systems," Acting Chief Information Officer Murray Mitchell said.
"These systems are regularly being updated and reviewed, and we are confident that our data and network were not compromised during the Christchurch Earthquake response or subsequently.''
KEY COY AT FIRST
Key was asked repeatedly this morning to confirm details of the SIS investigation.
He said he was satisfied there had been no misuse of the police computer. But when asked repeatedly if there had been an investigation by the SIS he refused to answer because it was not in the national interest.
Key also insisted there had been no misuse of New Zealand passports but when asked to confirm one Israeli had five passports he would only say he was aware they had several in their possession but refused to elaborate.
The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Key four times on the day of the earthquake but Key would only discuss part of those phone calls, which he said were to offer help and advice.
He would not discuss other aspects of the calls.
But when asked repeatedly if the Israeli government had done anything wrong he would not answer, saying it was not in the national interest for him to do so.
Key was also asked about an Israeli search and rescue team being escorted from the Red Zone by armed guards after being found there without permission.
He confirmed he was aware of an incident but "can't confirm all of the details in the way you've presented them".
EVENTS AFTER THE QUAKE
The response of the Israeli government to the three deaths appears extraordinary. In the hours after the 6.3 quake struck:
- Prime Minister John Key fielded the first of four calls that day from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
- Israel's Ambassador in the South Pacific, Shemi Tzur, who is based in Australia, booked flights to Christchurch, where he visited the morgue.
- Israel's civil defence chief left Israel for Christchurch.
- A complete Israeli urban search and rescue squad was assembled and flown to Christchurch, arriving about the same time as ...
- Three people who had smashed their way out of a van crushed by a concrete pillar in the central city, leaving a fourth person dead in the vehicle, arrived back in Israel.
Those four Israelis – Ofer Benyamin Mizrahi, 23, from Kibbutz Magal near Haifa, Michal Fraidman, Liron Sade and Guy Jordan – would later become a prime focus of the SIS investigation, along with the Israeli search and rescue squad and a group of forensic analysts from Israel that worked in the Christchurch morgue helping to identify earthquake victims.
The four, two men and two women, had been shopping in the central city on the morning of the earthquake and had returned to their van, parked in Gloucester St, when the quake hit. Mizrahi, the driver, was killed instantly, and Jordan, in the front passenger seat, smashed a window and climbed through the hole to escape. The two women, Fraidman and Sade, who were sitting in the back seat, also managed to crawl out.
They were unable to reach Mizrahi and, after taking photographs of the crushed van, made their way to Latimer Square, where Israeli officials had set up an emergency meeting point. Within 12 hours they had left New Zealand.
On Sunday, February 26, Mizrahi's body was recovered from the van and taken to the morgue where, during routine identity checks, he was reportedly found to be carrying at least five passports.
Meanwhile, the search and rescue squad dispatched from Israel had arrived in Christchurch but the offer of help was rejected by New Zealand authorities because the squad did not have accreditation from the United Nations.
According to Israeli newspaper reports, the squad was being funded by the parents of two other Israelis killed in the earthquake, Ofer Levy and Gabi Ingel, both 22, who were said to be in New Zealand on a backpacking holiday. The parents made repeated public appeals for the Israeli team to join the rescue, appeals that were dismissed by the New Zealand authorities until squad members were discovered in the sealed off "red zone" of the central city.
It is understood the squad members were confronted by armed New Zealand officers and removed from the area. That confrontation is understood to have led to intense diplomatic exchanges between New Zealand and Israel, though police have refused to comment on the incident or even acknowledge that it occurred, and the Israeli ambassador says he had not been advised of any such incident.
Another Israeli group, a forensic analysis team sent by the Israeli government, was welcomed in Christchurch and worked on victim identification in the morgue.
However, the SIS also began to have suspicions about this group when it began investigating possible links between the cache of passports found with Mizrahi, the immediate flight of his three companions, the high-powered Israeli interest shown in the earthquake, the unexplained behaviour of the supposed "search and rescue squad" and a mysterious seventh Israeli, in New Zealand illegally, who was first reported missing in the quake and then, weeks later, was reported to have left the country. They were also interested in the Facebook tribute page set up for Mizrahi that has attracted only five "likes" in the more than four months it has been on the social media site.
When it was realised the forensic analysts could have accessed the national police computer database, an urgent security audit was ordered.
As the SIS officer explained, it would take only moments for a USB drive to be inserted in a police computer terminal and loaded with a program allowing remote backdoor access.
"We were concerned that could have happened," the officer said.
"We carried out an urgent audit. If it had been done it would eventually have given the Israelis access to all of our intelligence."
The national database holds all records of convictions, firearms licences, lost and stolen property, criminal behaviour and identifying marks and observations taken by police. It is capable of sophisticated searching and data matching. The officer said the audit had not identified any suspicious files so far, but a wider SIS investigation was continuing.
"It all looks suspicious, but a lot of what the Israelis do raises suspicion. So lots of smoke but we haven't found any fires. The file remains open though."
Intelligence agencies have become hypersensitive to sophisticated hacking after the malware "agent.btz" was infiltrated into the computer systems of United States Military Command three years ago.
The US believes Russian agents were responsible and Deputy Defence Secretary William Lynn has described it as "a digital beachhead" for a foreign intelligence agency to attempt to steal data. Attempts to remove the malware have so far been unsuccessful – new, more potent variations of agent.btz are still appearing.
The SIS officer said the agency was also aware of a comment posted on the website of the Russian newspaper Pravda that the Christchurch earthquake had disrupted an Israeli spy base in the city.
The Southland Times asked police national headquarters for comment on the actions and activities of various Israeli groups after the earthquake. After considering the request for nine days, the police issued a brief statement, attributed to Assistant Commissioner Malcolm Burgess, confirming that three Israelis had died in the earthquake, that the van in which Mizrahi died had been recovered and examined, that police had not been involved in the decision to exclude the Israeli search squad, and that "police do not discuss or disclose details of personal effects found with any of the 181 victims".
Mr Tzur, also approached for comment, said it was "science fiction" that any Mossad agents had been involved.
- FRED TULETT/Southland Times and TRACY WATKINS/Stuff
- © Fairfax NZ News
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